Electric cars might not yet be green, but we should buy them anyway

Transforming the way we travel is an essential part of tackling the climate crisis. The transport sector contributes about 20% of global carbon emissions. In the UK the figure is 33%, and the country has made virtually no progress in reducing emissions from transport. In many countries, they’re actually increasing.

Electric vehicles are often hailed as the solution to this quandary, but some question their environmental credentials. With much of the world’s electricity still produced from fossil fuels, the criticism goes that EVs may actually be responsible for more carbon emissions over their lifetime than combustion engine vehicles. 

As German economics professor Hans-Werner Sinn put it in a recent controversial article, all we are doing is transferring carbon emissions “from the exhaust pipe to the power plant”. 

The assumptions underlying these claims are questionable. But even if true, this line of argument misses a key point. The car we choose to buy today directly influences the future of our energy system. Choose a combustion-powered vehicle and we lock in ongoing fossil fuel use. Choose an electric vehicle and we support the switch to a zero carbon society. 

Due in large part to the high carbon-cost of EV batteries, the manufacturing process for an electric vehicle causes more carbon emissions than for a combustion engine vehicle. This means that the source of electricity used during the life of an EV is critical in determining how eco-friendly they are. 

While two thirds of the world’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, this proportion is decreasing rapidly. At least four countries are already at or close to being powered entirely by renewable electricity: Iceland, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Norway. Brazil is one of the ten largest economies in the world and they are at 75% renewable electricity. In the UK, the proportion of electricity provided by fossil fuels has halved over the last decade and is currently about 40%. 

As the transition towards renewable electricity progresses, so too will the carbon footprint of EVs keep decreasing in step. This means that the superiority in carbon cost that electric vehicles already have over combustion vehicles, even if narrow now, will widen in the years to come. 

Influencing the future 

The electricity transition is only half the story. The production and purchase of new combustion vehicles locks in dependence on fossil fuel use for the life of that vehicle – just short of 14 years on average in the UK.